walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: September 25, 2013
A New Chance for Liberation Theology?


Religion News Service, in its online bulletin on September 17, 2013, carries an article entitled “Liberation theology finds a new welcome in Pope Francis’ Vatican”, by Alessandro Speciale (who regularly covers the Vatican). The story was triggered by the news that Francis is about to meet with Gustavo Gutierrez, the Peruvian Dominican, who was one of the founders of Liberation Theology. The immediate context of course is how Francis has called for “a poor church for the poor”, in addition to various actions of his showing his concern for the poor and the lowly. Since the RNS story the expectation that Francis will embrace Liberation Theology has been fueled by an interview he gave to a Jesuit periodical in which he urged the Church to stop prioritizing abortion, same-sex marriage and contraception over other urgent moral concerns (such as poverty).

Speciale also mentions Archbishop Gerhard Mueller, who was appointed by Benedict XVI as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the doctrinal watchdog of the Vatican) and still holds that office. It turns out that in 2004 Mueller co-authored a book with Gutierrez, which did not attract much attention at the time. But when an Italian translation was released, Osservatore Romano (the principal mouthpiece of the Vatican) carried a two-page story about it on September 3, 2013. I have not read the book and cannot say to what extent it showed Mueller endorsing at least some aspects of Liberation Theology. However, the attention to the book by Osservatore Romano indicates a degree of tolerance if not agreement with a school of thought that had been sharply criticized by Rome in the past. Another indicator of the alleged “new welcome” is the announcement that Mueller’s office will begin the process toward sainthood of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated by the military regime of El Salvador in 1980 and has become a hero of the Catholic Left.

Vaticanologists watch every nuance in the often opaque behavior of the Curia, comparable to the way in which Kremlinologists used to watch mysterious goings-on in the Soviet leadership. Speciale has no question mark after his article. I would gently suggest inserting one.

It is useful to recall the trajectory of Liberation Theology since its inception in Latin America some fifty years ago. Arguably its core concept was, and still is the “preferential option for the poor” (“la opcion preferencial para los pobres”). It meant not only that the Church should be concerned for the poor, but that it should express this concern by political action on their behalf; for some this meant revolutionary action to establish socialism. This was at the time when much of Latin America was ruled by authoritarian regimes of the Right, supported by the United States, and opposed to every semblance of socialism.

The definition of the situation assumed by Liberation Theology was Marxist: Poverty is caused by capitalism (both indigenous, so-called comprador capitalism, and its imperialist masters in America); the solution is socialism; the way there is political and if necessary armed resistance to the existent regimes. As far as I know, the core concept was coined in 1968 by Pedro Arrupe, then head of the Society of Jesus, in a letter to Latin American Jesuits. It was elaborated by Gutierrez in his 1971 book, A Theology of Liberation, and by a number of other Latin American writers. It was officially endorsed by the Conference of Latin American Bishops (CELAM) in the so-called “Medellin declaration” and endorsed by Pope John-Paul II in the encyclical Centesimus Annus (1991).

This fact alone should make one pause before ascribing embrace of Liberation Theology to anyone who uses its signature tune: In the same encyclical John-Paul (whose experience in Communist Poland made him allergic to every whiff of Marxism) endorsed the market economy, a first in papal pronouncements.  (He distinguished “market economy” from “capitalism” – a distinction that makes little sense – but this is neither here nor there.) “The preferential option for the poor” is now official Catholic social teaching, though shorn of its original Marxist underpinnings. In the US the name “Liberation Theology” was taken up by various Christian movements speaking for groups considered to be poor or oppressed – African-Americans, Latinos, women, gays. Some adherents of these movements have retained the old Marxist flavor, others have not.

Is it reasonable to expect that Pope Francis will embrace Liberation Theology as his predecessors have not? I think not. We know that throughout his career in his native Argentina, before and during his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he did not endorse Liberation Theology. We also know that on choosing the name of Francis of Assisi upon assuming the papacy, he signaled that the Church was always to have a special concern for poor, oppressed and marginalized people. His personal gestures since then have served to express this concern. If the phrase “preferential option for the poor” means that, I think that every Christian would agree with it. Jesus himself expressed, over and over again, his identification with those on the margins of society. To be sure, this attitude has political implications: There are policies that tend to alleviate poverty, some that do not. It should be self-understood that Christian churches, where they have a voice, should advocate for the former and against the latter. The trouble is that they are often wrong in their diagnosis and therefore in the treatment they propose.

Diego Mendez Arceo was Bishop of Cuernavaca, Mexico, in the 1960s. He became famous for denouncing the massacre of peaceful protesters by government forces in Mexico City in 1968, an action that required considerable courage under what was then a semi-authoritarian regime. When he returned from the aforementioned Medellin conference of CELAM, he said to an interviewer (at the airport, I recall): “No hay otra salida”/”There is no other way out”. What he meant was socialism. He was wrong.

Science never produces certainties. The social scientist studying the causes of poverty and its remedies can only offer probabilities. However, some probabilities can be so strong that they come close to knowledge. Leaving aside later adoptions of Liberation Theology, what about its original focus on poverty in an underdeveloped region of the world? What is good for the poor? I think that the evidence of the last fifty years is clear enough, so that we can say that we know the following: The most effective method of reducing poverty is economic growth. The economic system most likely to generate growth is capitalism. By way of contrast, socialism is ineffective in generating growth, and most likely to produce equality in poverty for most people and wealth for a small elite (the nomenklatura of the Soviet Union and other socialist regimes).

Of course this does not mean that, in addition to avoiding policies that inhibit economic growth, there is nothing else that government can do to get people out of poverty. The welfare state, operating alongside a capitalist economy, is the sum-total of government policies that are intended to help the poor, and often do. This is not the place to discuss the balance between economic growth and social welfare in capitalist democracies. Liberation Theology is no help in realistic moral thinking about this issue. Catholic moral teaching can be (though hardly in its entirety). I think that Pope Francis understands this.

[Photo of Gustavo Gutierrez courtesy Wikimedia.]

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  • Wayne Lusvardi

    If we have learned anything from such diverse thinkers as Niccolo Machiavelli, Max Weber, and Patrick Moynihan, it is that Christians should have a deterrence option against being poor, not a preferential option for the poor. Surprisingly, retired Jesuit scholar James V. Schall, S.J., has recently asked in the Catholic World Report: “Do Christians Love Poverty?”

    Schall wonders whether Christians want people to be poor so that they can be lovable? He points out that concern for the poor is often used to gain political legitimacy for those in power.

    It is not the purpose of Christianity to Schall to love the condition of poverty. As a Catholic he acknowledges that Evangelicals get further in Latin America because they ask converts for discipline, work, honest business dealings, and ingenuity. In short, they want them to learn how not to be poor rather than to just give them material aid.

    Citing Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” Schall says Catholics have been less concerned with creating more material goods or wealth than Protestants. Catholics, like liberals are mainly concerned about how to distribute goods. Schall writes: “The poor man is not really much interested in our love of him or his poverty if we do not know how NOT to be poor.”

    Sounding a lot like Vilfredo Pareto’s “Optimality” concept, Schall says the litmus test of the “Preferential Option for the Poor is: “love for the poor should not make things worse or more totalitarian for everyone else.”

    Schall reminds Christians that it was Judas who said in John 13:29 that “it would be better to use the money for the poor.”

    Schall calls for a shift in Catholic social thought away from associating with the poor looking like the poor, or assuming the poor want to be poor but without ignoring the poor. To Schall: Christians “ought to realize that the first step in this change of emphasis is to rid itself of the idea that redistribution of existing goods is nothing but a revolutionary method that would really make everyone poor.”

    If the Catholic Church wants to put itself out of business it will pursue the “preferential option for the poor” as a purely horizontal end that affirms that there is no transcendent end for the poor, the rich, or those in between. Schall writes: “In lieu of God, does concern for the poor become a substitute for God as the only visible way to prove that we are not just being selfish…or for no other reason than for their self esteem?”

    As Peter Berger affirms: “Liberation Theology is no help in realistic moral thinking about an issue. Catholic moral teaching can be.”

    In this regard, I would hope Pope Francis would be informed by the Catholic moral teaching of those like Jesuit scholar James Schall and Rev. Robert Sirico at the Acton Institute, not Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez.

    • Gary Novak

      Good post– I agree with your claim that endorsing Liberation Theology would be more likely to put the Catholic Church out of business than to help the poor. But I am puzzled by your quote of Schall suggesting that Catholic social thought needs to rid itself of the idea that “redistribution of existing goods is nothing but a revolutionary method that would really make everyone poor.” Isn’t that the empirical finding that Christians need to embrace?

      • Wayne Lusvardi


  • Mark Gordon

    There’s a significant distinction to be made between a “market economy” and capitalism. Capitalism, like socialism, is focused on the concentration of economic power, only in private rather than public institutions. But capitalists rely on the the State to regulate markets in ways favorable to their enterprises, including expelling competitors. Crony capitalism and regulatory capture aren’t bugs in the system; they’re features, observable everywhere that system exists. Capitalists also rely on the State to provide the social safety net that serves to moderate the effects of capitalism’s boom-and-bust nature. This was Keynes’ key insight: that to save capitalism, the State had to become a partner, taking up the social and economic slack when business had run the economy into a ditch.

    A truly free market economy privileges the widest possible distribution of productive economic resources – with primacy given to family-based businesses, small farms, cooperatives, credit unions, etc. – at the expense of concentrations of either private or public wealth. That economic model fits very ideally, and in fact is drawn from, the principles of Catholic Social Teaching, including the primacy of the family, the common good, solidarity, subsidiarity, and the dignity and rights of workers.

    • Wayne Lusvardi


      I find your definition of Capitalism as “focused on the concentration of economic power” close to a Marxist definition. Capitalism is not concerned with rent seeking or monopoly power.

      I believe Max Weber in his “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” captured up the most accurate definition of capitalism:

      “And the same is true of the most fateful force in our modern life, capitalism. The impulse to acquisition, pursuit of gain, of money, of the greatest possible amount of money, has in itself nothing to do with capitalism. This impulse exists and has existed among waiters, physicians, coachmen, artists, prostitutes, dishonest officials, soldiers, nobles, crusaders, gamblers, and beggars. One may say that it has been common to all sorts and conditions of men at all times and in all countries of the earth, wherever the objective possibility of it is or has been given. It should be taught in the kindergarten of cultural history that the naïve idea of capitalism must be given up once and for all. Unlimited greed for gain is not in the least identical with capitalism, and is still less its spirit. Capitalism may even be identical with the restraint, or at least a rational tempering, or this irrational impulse. But capitalism is identical with the pursuit of profit, and forever RENEWED profit, by means of continuous, rational, capitalistic enterprise. For it must be so: in a wholly capitalistic order of society, an individual capitalistic enterprise which did not take advantage of its opportunities for profit-making would be doomed to extinction.”

  • Anthony

    “The economic system most likely to generate growth is capitalism.”La opcion preferencial para los pobres – no hay otra salida remains a vital Christian tenet in this instance. Nevertheless, can it be said that all social problems (poverty) stem from the economic system. I think such an assertion is questionable since any economic organization/system superimposes itself on ills of long standing (poverty, crime, discrimination, prostitution, etc.).

    Essentially as capitalism thrust itself up into the world, it did not create that world or its ideas. Capitalism (mixed market/regulation or automatic unregulated) modified that world. Now, can Liberation Theology utilize capitalism in ameliorating ills of marginalized populations going forward as implied in Peter Berger’s essay. I think that depends on the mobilization of its Christian populace – a populace with little idealism in the efficacy of Liberation Theology. We shall see…

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    While Evangelical Christians in South America are reported to convey a work ethic to the poor in the U.S. it is sometimes the reverse. The Evangelical Left organized the Circle of Protection in response to the 2011 Federal Debt Ceiling Crisis to protect social welfare entitlements from cuts. The Circle is a consortium of liberal church and evangelical para church organizations.

    Currently Jim Wallis, the leader of the Evangelical Left and the organizer of the Circle of Protection, has organized protests against proposed cuts to the Food Stamp program. Typical of the Left, they are more concerned about symbolism than substance. It ends up there is no proposed cutback in Food Stamps. Rather, what is proposed is tougher eligibility requirements requiring those who are employable look for work, do volunteer work, or enter an occupational training program. The new proposed rules would also disqualify lottery winners. But there is political capital to be gained in protesting the so-called cuts. Read “The Food Stamp Gospel” in the Sept. 27 issue of the American Spectator by Mark Tooley.

    The Evangelical Left is an interesting movement comprised of leaders from the Knowledge Class who grew up in Evangelical families and churches. They are nearly indistinguishable from the Democratic Party. They are proponents of the modern day Social Gospel. During the Mortgage Bubble they were advocates for sub prime mortgages and opponents or mortgage red lining. When the Mortgage Bubble burst throwing hundreds of thousands of mostly minority families into foreclosure the Evangelical Left blamed the Big Banks.

    Old School Evangelicals would have told minorities to work hard and not get over their heads in debt.

    Which Evangelicals are the most helpful to minorities?

    • bpuharic

      The poor are, of course, looking for work. It’s an irony of American history that the right thinks the wealthy work hard while the poor don’t.

      And subprime mortgages didn’t hit 10% of all mortgages until 2004 and hit 25% in 2006, right as the economy started to tank

      The GOP controlled congress and the presidency at that point.

  • Gary Novak

    Although he does not discuss realistic moral thinking about the proper balance between (capitalist) economic growth and the welfare state in this post, Berger has no doubt that realism requires a balance. Man was not made for the Sabbath or for capitalism. To the considerable extent to which capitalism produces human well-being, it should be supported. To the extent that it falls short, it needs to be modified, regulated, supplemented.

    By contrast, Mark Gordon sees capitalism as essentially parasitical. The executive committee of the capitalist class– also known as the state– functions only for the welfare of big capital by protecting monopolies, by passing on the cost of “externalities” (e. g., environmental clean-up) to the public after capitalists have run the economy into the ditch, by providing unemployed workers and unemployable non-workers (outside the labor force) with a social wage, and so on. Unsustainable rapacious capitalism would soon collapse without the complicity of the state in covering capitalism’s multitude of sins.

    His solution? A “free economy”! “A truly free market economy privileges the widest possible distribution of economic resources . . ..” The means of production are to be in the hands of small businesses, small farms, cooperatives– small everything is to be “privileged.” Privileged how? Through tax incentives? (Who is the tax collector in the land of flowers and butterflies?) Through a national Luddite police force that smashes businesses with more than ten employees? Utopian anarchism is no more realistic than utopian socialism.

    And why is it so hard for folks on the left to understand that the public purse only contains wealth created by the capitalist economy. The Wall Street Journal never tires of presenting graphs showing that as taxes increase revenues fall– because of disincentives to wealth production.

    Gordon implies that Berger is naive or devious in portraying the bugs of capitalism as remediable. But is Gordon practicing the ethics of responsibility when he offers redemption through downsizing? It’s hard to see the purpose of such an argument as anything but the establishment of one’s ideological purity.

  • Kanga 13

    Why are Americans so afraid of Liberation Theology? Why are they so afraid that Francis might say something positive about it? Time to give up all of those old anti-Marxist propaganda points and the suspicion that went with it. The time to drop the pink-colored glasses is long overdue. Let the Church speak in its own voice minus the filters. Marxism is dead, and the poor are still with us. Why and how to change that will continue to discomfit the many who are invested in the status quo.

  • Arch

    Sorry for the length of this comment.

    In 1981, I lived in San Salvador – a tropical Baghdad without a green zone. Until April, there was a dusk to dawn curfew. Rebels were destroying the economy. Unemployment was at 50%. IEDs were common. The Army patrolled the streets. Anyone not in a military uniform was shot. The morning paper, El Hoy, had a section containing pictures of the dead, many with bullet holes in their foreheads. The military saw what the Sandinistas did to their military – threw the officer in prison – and had no desire to allow that to happen.

    Liberation Theology is dangerous because it links the Church directly to communist revolutionaries. Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed before I arrived, suggested that soldiers refuse to obey orders to engage “subversivos.” In El Salvador, politics is a contact sport and opposing the military can be fatal.

    The Church has been a central institution throughout El Salvador since the 16th Century. Every village has a church and a school. Boys who excel are often sent abroad to college. Some went to Notre Dame or Boston College paid for by the Catholic Church. Many of Salvadorian priests attended seminary in the Vatican and then returned to their villages. The exposure to material wealth here and in Europe made the newly ordained susceptible to Marxism. Salvador was materially the poorest nation in Central America. Many of the local bands of revolutionaries where their boyhood friends. It was “unfair.” They carried messages and operated safe houses. The catholic Church appeared to take sides.

    As a Pole, Pope John Paul knew the perils of communism and the dangers it brought to the Church. He forbade clergy from preaching Liberation Theology. He was right.

  • barthomew

    Saint John Paul II put the Jesuits under a test. That was around the time his aide, Cardinal Ratzinger, had issued a strong Vatican document against Liberation Theology. The Jesuits passed the test of loyalty. And Saint John Paul came out with a papal document that was not as strongly against Liberation Theology as the document Ratzinger issued.
    Saint John Paul II had a dialogue with philosopher Michael Novak. It would not be true to say that Saint John Paul was highly in favor of the market economy and capitalism. Novak persuaded him to say things about the market economy and capitalism than were more positive than what he had been thinking and saying up until then.
    Theologian Gregory Baum argued that the versions of Liberation Theology were speaking more to the Latin American situation. He also said that black theology was too inclined to be sexist; feminist theology was too inclined to be classist; and Latin American Liberation Theology was too inclined to be racist.

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